Democracy depends on bursting the filter bubble

CATEGORIES: Student Perspective
Students in Jay Newell's media planning class at Iowa State University examined ad spending figures in the 2016 presidental election. Photo by Megan Gilbert

By the Students of Advrt 335 Media Planning

The Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication’s Media Planning class teaches advanced advertising and public relations students how to connect audiences with the marketing needs of advertisers. This semester, the course is taught by Dr. Jay Newell, whose research portfolio includes scholarship on media saturation, the extent to which people surround themselves with media tools and messages.

Involved in the project were, front row, left to right: Lucas Brandt (West Des Moines, advertising major), Bennett Ford (Cedar Falls, public relations), Emily Belloma (Knoxville, marketing/advertising), Katie Alexander (Evergreen Park, IL, advertising), Katie Wallner (Brookfield IL, advertising), Christina Creel (Edgewood, advertising), Jessica Newton (Johnston, public relations), Megan Mojeiko (Clinton, journalism), Robyn Riley (Ames, public relations), Megan Olson (Keota, advertising), Kayla Benefiel (Muscatine, advertising), Jacquelyn Bell (Fairfield, advertising). Back row, left to right: Jeffrey Bayram (Bartlett IL, advertising), Alex Beach (Sioux City, advertising), Ian McBrayer (Cedar Rapids, advertising), David Coconate Chicago, advertising), Omar Shibat Alhamd (Madinah, Saudi Arabia, advertising) , associate professor Jay Newell, Corbin Jerde (Golden Valley MN, advertising), Mia Guion (Racine WI, advertising), Amy Kuckler (West St. Paul MN, advertising), Laura Wood (Muscatine, advertising), Megan Danielson (North Oaks MN, advertising). Not pictured: Anna Fromm (West Des Moines, advertising), Brittany Gilkes (Dubuque,advertising /business), Danny Schnathorst (Des Moines, public relations), Jeliah Seely (Des Moines, advertising), Lauren Waugh (advertising, Tipton),Hailey Warren (Carlisle, advertising).

In the rancor of the presidential campaign, it was easy to miss a critical media fact: what used to be Iowa’s floods of presidential campaign ads on TV have slowed to something like a dribble. In 2012 there was $57 million of ads on Iowa TV in the closing months of the campaign, and in 2008 there was close to $40 million. Since May of this year, the candidates and political action committees ran a much lower $9 million of ads.

While good news for television viewers seeking entertainment, it was bad news for democracy. Like it or not, advertising on TV means being exposed to multiple views. In contrast, information on the internet, advertising and all, is programmed to provide only ideas that fit your own preferences. You are offered only what the internet thinks you already like.

We’re students and faculty in the advertising media class in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. We tracked every presidential ad purchase on Iowa television stations this election cycle. That meant digging into the Federal Communication Commission files, where TV stations are required to register political ad buys.

We had two goals. We wanted to explore how advertising has changed. And then we wanted to suggest ways to be informed in a democracy that’s undergoing shifts in media usage.

There were still plenty of presidential ads overall–we’ve counted over 23,000 ads in the eight Iowa media markets since May 1.

That’s many fewer than the 132,000 ads run for Obama and Romney in 2012 and the 90,000 ads (and $46 million) that were placed in the runup to this year’s Iowa Caucuses.

How many ads you saw depended on where you lived. The Des Moines area has about 36% of Iowa’s population, but 55% of all the presidential ad dollars were used to reach voters there. Cedar Rapids, with 29% of the population, saw 22% of the spending. Sioux City has 9% of Iowa’s population, but got less than 2% of the advertising spending.

At least the smaller number of presidential commercials was good news to local merchants. In past election cycles, local advertisers such as supermarkets, car dealerships and convenience stores have been pushed out of the politics-saturated advertising market. This time, even with spending on non-presidential campaigns, there was room on TV for business to continue advertising.

But for the long run, the decreasing number of presidential ads on TV may be a symptom of a larger issue. Advertising overall is moving online. Internet spending is predicted to exceed television ad spending in the coming years. The ad mechanisms of the internet work differently. On media such as TV and newspapers, every viewer can see every ad. On the internet, the algorithms used by companies such as Google and Facebook offer each individual what that individual is likely to click on. People click on the links that reinforce their pre-existing attitudes.

Internet activist Eli Pariser called the process of reducing information to only what the internet thinks you want “the filter bubble.” The customization of information may not be a big problem for entertainment. Dog lovers see dog videos, few cats allowed. But while democracy requires that voters be exposed to all points of view, the internet has other ideas: we click on what we already believe, creating a society-wide echo chamber.

The solution to breaking through the filter bubble doesn’t come from the internet, but from ourselves.

Pay attention to how the media systems work. It’s the first step in taking control. What looks like a conspiracy to deny information might be the unintended consequences of good business.

Then, put effort into your own information needs. Reach beyond what’s easily accessible on the internet–look at all the candidate websites, read their position papers. Dig for information, and not just from your favorite sources or the ones at the top of the Google results page.

Most of us who did this research are from Iowa, and all of us are used to hard work. It’s a lot of effort to go beyond what the internet serves up to you. By all means, seek out sources that affirm your views, but test those views by scooping out as much information as you can.

We hope in the next election cycle, you’ll join us in breaking through the bubble and making your own informed, rather than just affirmed, decisions.

The Greenlee School shares the data from this project for scholarly and non-commercial use. Click here to access to the dataset. Please credit "Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, Iowa State University."